Every now and then I browse for a book to read outside my normal discipline, and this was the one I chose for my quarterly dose of science. In this I have to say that I was only partially successful, and it’s only tenuously that I actually categorize this as a scientific text.
While science is no doubt the key element around which the text is written, it is much more concerned with a philosophy of science than a study of some specific scientific idea, and even more-so than that it is concerned with the the general thoughts of how the author perceives science as interacting with the rest of the world.
The Meaning of It All is a text adapted from a series of lectures given by the late Richard Feynman in 1963 at the University of Washington. As noted above, I think the proper category for the text is in the philosophy of science. Feynman opens with a discussion of what exactly science is: what does it encompass, what is its purpose, what is outside its bounds, and what are the fundamental features of the endeavor.
The two chief principles laid out are the value in science of uncertainty and doubt, hence: “All scientific knowledge is uncertain… You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.” and “If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas.”
What follows from this talk of what science is and how it operates is a discussion of how science (and its methods) can and do affect various other aspects of life to include religion, politics, psychology, ethics and society in general. In a sort of biographical prose Mr. Feynman discusses everything from the church and education to war, from flying saucers to faith healing to telepathy to politicians and the role of government. He is entertaining, witty, and openly honest, with the added benefit of being informative.
At only 122 pages The Meaning of It All is a short book, and one that makes for a very fun and light introduction to the philosophy of science. I imagine, also, that it is a very good introduction to the writings of Mr. Feynman, or at least it was for me, and I will probably be keeping my eye out for other books by him. He may be over 20 years passed, but he is still a fun and relevant read, even if some of the things he discusses are long past.
-”Why repeat all this? Because there are new generations born every day. Because there are great ideas developed in the history of man, and these ideas do not last unless they are passed purposely and clearly from generation to generation.”(p.4)
-”Words can be meaningless. If they are used in such a way that no sharp conclusions can be drawn.”(p.20)
-”The third possibility of explanation of the phenomenon is that the young man perhaps doesn’t understand science correctly, that science cannot disprove God, and that a belief in science and religion is consistent.”(p.36)
-”You see, if you don’t have a good reason, you have to have several reasons…”(p.43)
-”The only way that we will make a mistake is that in the impetuous youth of humanity we will decide we know the answer. This is it. No one else can think of anything else. And we will jam. We will confine man to the limited imagination of today’s human beings.”(p.57)
-”This is in the attitude of mind of the populace, that they have to have an answer and that a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around.”(p.66)
-”Writing commentaries is some kind of disease of the intellect.”(p.115)
If I wanted to be extremely nitpicky I could probably critique some of Feynman’s comments on religion, but really, that would serve no purpose, so I won’t. When taken as a whole there is very little I could take issue with. One comment I might make is upon the conclusion where Mr. Feynman discusses how ideally (in the realm of morals and ethics) we could simply agree that we agree, and not argue about why we each agree upon the given conclusion.
Perhaps the chief issue with this line of thinking is that it offers no justification; if ethics are not justified, but simply agreed upon, then there is nothing to say that they are not arbitrary apart from popular consent. Morals and ethics simply become a matter of majority rule – but what about the minority or the one who questions the ethics of those who all agree with each other? Simply, if we are without a why then we are without a reason.